IT’S NOT EASY to have a conversation with someone you have hurt. Especially when it’s your mother. Especially when you have to invent her side of the conversation because your mother is dead.
The brief history: In 1978, at the age of 38, while a graduate student at Harvard, my mother suffered an aneurysm. A blood vessel ruptured in her brain, spilling a wide swath of damage. She survived, but it crippled her: left-side paralysis, her mind as jumbled as a pile of Legos. After a few months at Mass. General, she returned home to New Hampshire. With an adult family friend, my brother and sister and I helped take care of her. I was 12. I grew up fast.
To my eyes, I was stuck with a scary, broken mother I couldn’t figure out how to love. Nor could I ascertain through her brain-scrambled haze if she truly loved me. The old Sara Gilsdorf — athlete, artist, cook, photographer, teacher, doer — was gone. I looked for years but never again found that woman and mother who kept her three children clean and fed — the person who taught me how to draw, to cook, to take photographs, to cross-country ski, to plant a garden.
For my high school and part of my college years, Mom lived at home with us. Then, as her health declined, a suitable place for her was found. Mom spent her last nine years in a nursing home, alone.
And yet, she still speaks.
During most of my 20s, I avoided her. I bounced from Western Mass., Louisiana, France, and Middle-earth. She’d call and I’d listen to long, quasi-nonsensical monologues about her medical crises or Julia Child. Dangling on the other end of the line, I’d cringe. Sometimes, I’d let her calls go to voice mail. When I’d visit her at her nursing home in Portsmouth, my goal was to make our time together as painless as possible. Painless for me. I’d last about two hours. In the sterile environs of her room, our conversations would go something like this:
Mom: “Did you see that show on PBS? You always liked penguins.”
“Can you roll the blanket down? I’m roasting.”
“Mom, it’s 65 degrees in here. You can do it yourself. Please eat something. The nurses say you aren’t eating.”
“Ethan, you’re sucking all the oxygen out of the room. I need an Ativan.”
I spent a lot of time resisting her. Arguing with her. Putting up thorny walls. By the time she died in 1997, most of her friends had stopped visiting. I had largely stopped visiting. And so I have regrets. Hence the conversations. One-sided.
“Mom, I could have been a better son. More compassionate. I could have listened more, visited you more. I could have found more time to just be with you. The Mom you were.”
I should have pushed not my mother away, but my fears of loving someone who couldn’t love me back the way I needed. All I had to do was let her in. But I wasn’t mature enough, or smart enough, or healed-over enough. There’s scant comfort in the not knowing — what I could have done. Or, if given another chance, whether I would have the courage to be different. On good days, I forgive myself. Other days, I do not.
On the best days, Mom visits. When I’m asleep. Sometimes we talk. Or she’ll show me a recipe, or simply watch as I paint a picture. That is some good I wring from this netherworld. Mom, I look forward to our next conversation.